Medical information in the press and the doctor-patient relationship

15 Feb
Gaietà Permanyer

For years, I have been under the impression of not having a clear idea of how information related to the complex world of medicine and health should be disseminated in the daily news media, both of the science that it is based on and of the difficulties and dilemmas in applying it in practice.

I have repeatedly refused offers, with only rare exceptions, to write texts on these subjects in newspapers or books of a non-professional nature: I had serious doubts of how to transmit this knowledge to the public at large. Looking back critically on these reservations I have had, I think they have been related to the paternalism inherent in the medical training received by the professionals of my generation: the fear that the public will make an incorrect interpretation and come to abhorrent conclusions of the facts disseminated, an audience with little knowledge on the theoretical foundations and subtleties of these facts, which are only accessible with proper professional training. Indeed, experience has shown me that these reservations were indeed justified.

However, at the same time, I have witnessed the growth of citizens’ autonomy, now widely acknowledged, and their right to take “informed decisions”. This position, which has come to define the 21st Century as “the patients’ century”, acknowledges their right to know relevant professional data so as to be able to take accurate decisions autonomously; it has an undeniable foundation but if we are to avoid that this leads to the proliferation of distorted facts it will require a rigorous preparation and an absence of spurious interests on the part of those divulging information. Ideally, these informants should contribute to “health literacy” in a way that is balanced, objective and unemotional.

The tension between these two conceptions of health information goes in parallel with that which exists between two extreme views of the doctor-patient relationship: the classical paternalistic one (“the doctor knows better than anyone what is best for a patient and their decision must be accepted”) and that of the “informed consumer” with autonomous decisions. The other extreme of this corresponds to an “imminent revolution” in which it would be the very well-informed patient, (basically as a result of the spread of refined computer technology) that would take the most important decisions concerning themselves.

Personally, like many others, I prefer a more balanced approach: that corresponding to the “interpretative” and “deliberative” models of the doctor-patient relationship, in which the experience and knowledge of the former interact with the latter respecting their autonomy.

I think that this dilemma runs parallel to the medical information found in daily news media: on the one hand, there is the social demand to inform citizens of current advances so they know their options or opportunities as “informed consumers”; on the other, there is the temptation to fuel the emotions (triumphalism or fear) of the reader who is untrained by offering them information which is largely uncritical, lacks rigour or is insufficient, with the risk of a biased, distorted or exaggerated interpretation. The more or less unreal notions that some informants may have on medical and health problems (common, alas, among many professionals) can be transmitted like this directly to the citizen and to their emotions and desires.

In the case of news related to medical advances and innovations, I would like citizens to know what expectations these novelties raise, maybe now within their reach, and the magnitude or relevance of the problem that can be lessened or resolved, and that this be done by using a rigorous and prudent terminology so that citizens can also create their own opinion on the solidity or temporariness of an innovation, and of the related uncertainties and limitations: not only of the benefits that they can provide them with but also of the undesired, uncomfortable or harmful side effects they might produce, and whether they are in anyway frequent or probable. In other words, I would not like the main aim of this information to be that of creating hope or fear in the reader, or give them the idea in a triumphal tone that in the wonderful world of science, the war against disease has claimed a new victory, especially at the hands of local researchers.

I have recently taken part in an analysis of the news published in the daily press in Catalonia on medical innovations.

Even though some well-documented news described in sufficient detail was found that could provide balanced information to the reader in this analysis, in many other cases the information was one-sided or not very thorough and was devoid of facts related to questionable aspects of the innovation and their risks. It resulted in a biased message which often tended to induce optimism in the reader rather than educate them in the knowledge of the pros and cons of the medical innovations.

At a time when there is a call for a user’s well-informed autonomy, I would be delighted if healthcare culture and the attitude of the news media did not amount to a paternalistic doctor-patient relationship. In this regard, there is no doubt that much still needs to be done.

Post written by Gaietà Permanyer Miralda. Emeritus physician. Unit of Epidemiology, Cardiology Service. Hospital Vall d’Hebron, Barcelona.

Health literacy, a need

26 Jan
Mercè Piqueras 2016
Mercè Piqueras

Traditionally, knowledge in medicine was considered an exclusive domain of medical professionals. Patients were passive subjects that listened to a diagnosis while hardly understanding it and followed, or not, the instructions they were given by the doctor. Nowadays, an attempt is made to provide patients with enough basic medical knowledge to allow them to interact with the doctor, take decisions about their health and avoid making mistakes that could have serious repercussions.

One of the subjects discussed at the 2016 European Health Forum Gastein (this Forum is an annual gathering organised by the European Commission in Bad Hofgastein, Austria, to discuss subjects related to health which affect European countries) was health literacy or, otherwise known as, the ability to access the relevant information for one’s own health or that of society and to be able to understand and assess it. It refers to the understanding of what the doctor tells the patient and the information contained in the patient information leaflets that accompany drugs. It also refers to the ability of identifying whether the information on health in the media is reliable, understanding the information on food labels and also participating in activities which improve health and well-being.

The first European Health Literacy Survey (HLS-EU) was carried out in the summer of 2011. Eight states from the EU took part and the questionnaire centred around three aspects (health care, disease prevention and health promotion) and in four of the phases in processing and informing (access, understanding, assessment and application).


Health Literacy

While in the Netherlands 70% of the population have sufficient or excellent knowledge, in Spain, this percentage is 41,7% and it is the area with the highest percentage of problematic situations (50,08%).

Similar studies done in the United States indicate that a lack of health literacy carries risks, puts the breaks on the self-management of an illness and increases medical visits and hospital admissions and therefore, the expenditure on health.

Health literacy is not parallel to the degree of literacy in general. For example, the consumption of homeopathic products, the resistance to vaccination, or the belief that transgenic products are harmful for one’s health are widespread attitudes in some well-educated sectors with a high cultural baggage but which have a mistaken or biased knowledge of certain subjects on health. Unfortunately, these people believe they are well informed and are probably the population group where it will be most difficult to eradicate this type of illiteracy.

Post written by Mercè Piqueras (@lectoracorrent), biologist, science writer, science editor and translator, president of the Catalan Association for Science Communication in the period 2006-2011.

Health data: Do we give citizens what they want?

24 Nov
Dolores Ruiz-Muñoz, Anna García-Altés and Hortènsia Aguado

The right to receive advice with regards to the information available on the network is reflected in the Carta de drets i deures de la ciutadania en relació a la salut i l’atenció sanitària (Citizens Bill of Rights and Duties relating to health and healthcare), updated in 2015. In particular, it specifies that a person has the right to obtain accurate and reliable recommendations from health professionals in terms of the available health information on the network (web pages, applications, etc…).

It is a fact that, from different professional sectors, we are more and more frequently identifying citizens as a key group to take into consideration when communicating the outcomes of our work, including the health sector. The different actors involved in disseminating health information resulting from the Catalan health system activity are no exception. When we publish our data we do it more and more in a way that is not only aimed at informing health professionals on the one hand but also at being accountable to citizens as end users.

But have we really asked citizens what information they want to obtain from us?

From the Results Centre of the Catalan Health System Observatory we publish a series of reports annually with quantitative indicators that aim to measure, assess and disseminate the results obtained in the different areas of the public health system. Up to the present, to disseminate this information beyond the comfort zone of the health sector, we have published a series of infographics with the information that we have considered to be most relevant for citizens, making the effort to create a user friendly format.



During the first semester of 2016, we spent time reflecting on our labour and we realised that we did not in fact know whether what we were publishing for citizens really reached or interested them. We did not even know what it was that citizens wanted to receive from us. To answer these questions we carried out a qualitative study of Catalan citizens to find out what their needs for health information were, but not limiting ourselves to that produced by the Results Centre.

We created three discussion groups and invited citizens randomly selected from Registre Central d’Assegurats del CatSalut (CatSalut’s Central Registry of the Insured) to freely express what they felt their necessities for health information were. What we discovered was that the population is not interested in receiving health information in a general or systematic way but rather only wants health information when they have a specific personal need and which is directly related to what is affecting them at a given time. They are not interested, therefore, in receiving health information about the population as a whole nor of how the health system works. They state that this information is necessary but feel it is health professionals who need to have it and know how to manage it. In this way, they place their trust in the health system by dissociating themselves from this type of information.

Furthermore, they consider it of interest that the information be made available on the networks but state that, whether they actively search for it on the internet or not, what they need is to be able to contrast the information at a later stage with their primary care physician or specialist, and that it be this professional who discerns what the best information available is for each occasion. What is more, they clearly identify this professional as being the person who needs to know the health information produced systematically by the Catalan health system.

We presented the results of this study at a recent congress, to be exact, the XXXIV Congress of the Spanish Society for the Quality of Healthcare and the XXI Congress of the Andalusian Society for the Quality of Healthcare, generating a very interesting posterior debate regarding these results. One of the attendees at the congress stated their concern for the fact that citizens were not interested in receiving general health information. The debate centred on how we could educate the population into showing an interest in this information and on how to make it reach them. We believe that the key underlying question here is whether this need be done at all.

The public at large have an overwhelming amount of information at their disposal on an infinite number of different subjects on a daily basis. It seems clear that when a person has a specific need regarding their state of health they consult a professional in whom they trust. It is obvious that to us, as healthcare professionals, we will always feel that the information we produce is of such interest as to make others want to know about it, but it is also probable that our enthusiasm makes us biased when interpreting reality. We should perhaps ask ourselves whether we need to make the effort to provide the public with information they say they do not need nor interests them, and whether we are prepared to accept their decision and respect it.

Post written by Dolores Ruiz-Muñoz, Anna García-Altés and Hortènsia Aguado.